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Date : 17th January, 2018
Time : 1h 3’ 34”
Number of runners : 10
Total distance run to date : 1350 km
Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2452288778
One of the questions I’m continually asked, and continually ask myself, is whether it’s safe to visit countries. Take Mauritania for example. The British Foreign Office advice is fairly stark : “Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Mauritania, including kidnapping. You should be especially vigilant in public places and monitor local media. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.” (Please see Facts & Stats below for more detail on the Foreign Office advice).
They also publish a map of the country which makes it clear that they advise against all travel to the eastern two-thirds of the country and against all but essential travel to the western third (which contains the capital Nouakchott.)
And it’s evident that the expat community takes the threat seriously. I was invited to a social function on the night I was there and my hosts were good enough to send a car. The car door was the heaviest I’ve ever tried to close. I turned to the driver with an inquisitive look. “Yes, bullet proof armour.”
The following day I gave a talk at the American International School Nouakchott (AISN) which is located within the US Embassy compound. They also sent a car to pick me up. And despite it being a US Embassy car, it still took us 5 minutes to get through security. Not only did they use a mirror to check underneath the car – which is the basic security check you encounter in many places – but they also lifted the bonnet to check the engine, looked all over and in the car, and then opened the petrol cap for a quick inspection of the petrol tank.
Of course, any time its potentially dangerous for foreigners, you can be fairly sure it’s a whole lot worse for the local population. Coups, ethnic tensions, human rights violations and slavery have all featured in Mauritania’s recent past. Indeed slavery is still said to be a huge issue –– with some contending that Mauritania has the highest per capita ratio of slaves in the world. (Please see Facts & Stats below for more detail. In the interests of balance I should note that official sources in Mauritania claim that this, and other problems, are exaggerated by foreign governments and NGOs.)
By now you may thinking that it’s fairly obvious that I shouldn’t have gone to Mauritania. But, before you reach any conclusions, read the rest of the blog.
The lovely people at the American International School Nouakchott (AISN) had also arranged for me to be picked up at the airport and whisked to my hotel where, after a quick change, Meghan picked me up and took me to the start of the run at Nouakchott’s Olympic Stadium.
As an aside, it never ceases to surprise me how many Olympic stadiums there are around the world. Especially when you consider given how carefully the IOC control usage of anything even vaguely associated with the Olympic brand. For example, during the 2012 London Games, a butcher in Weymouth had to take down a sign displaying 5 rings made of sausages.
Even further off to one side, in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics / Paralympics a few of us set up an Olympic and Paralympic themed charity challenge which we originally thought about calling the Olympic Challenge – but then had to rename the Gold Challenge. (To be fair, LOCOG – the London Organising Committee of the Games – and the BOA – the British Olympic Association – were then both very helpful and helped us to reach our target of 100 000 challenge participants.)
Enough of the digression and back to the run.
As luck would have it, British Ambassador Thomas Reilly (who’s normally based in Rabat) happened to be in town and, along with Vinay Talwar (Head of the UK Office in Mauritania), came along and officially started the run. And even joined us for the first 200m. (This is where I say, for the nth time in these blogs, just how much I appreciate the support Run the World receives from British, and American, diplomats abroad.)
There were about 10 of us who took part in various stages of the run and we ran from the stadium, past the dolphin fountain and towards the airport for 5 kilometres. Helped along by plenty of chatter and a little Bob Marley sing along.
The second half was little more focused in terms of the running vs chatting ratio but there was still time for a bit of filming as we passed the dolphin fountain for the second time at the 8.5 km mark
before finishing back at the Olympic stadium.
The next day I had the privilege of talking to both the senior and junior schools at the AISN. Great fun as always – the more of these talks I do, the more I understand why teachers love their jobs. I hope the students also enjoyed them and got something of value out of the talks!
It just remains for me to say a huge thank you to Meghan, Ambassador Reilly, Director Craig, Vinay, Erna, Jordan, Erin, Papis, Besma, Agustin and Daniel for a memorable run and time in Mauritania!
Visiting Mauritania was obviously not without risk. On the other hand, I ran in another country, I gave two school talks and I met a load of great people. So, what do you reckon – was it right to go? What would you have done in my place? Let me know!
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Facts & Stats
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.
Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb region of North-western Africa. It is the eleventh largest country in Africa and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Western Sahara in the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mali in the east and southeast, and Senegal in the southwest.
The country derives its name from the ancient Berber kingdom of Mauretania, which existed from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century in the far north of modern-day Morocco and Algeria. Approximately 90% of Mauritania’s land is within the Sahara; consequently, the population is concentrated in the south, where precipitation is slightly higher. The capital and largest city is Nouakchott, located on the Atlantic coast, which is home to around one-third of the country’s 4.3 million people. The government was overthrown on 6 August 2008, in a military coup d’état led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. On 16 April 2009, Aziz resigned from the military to run for president in the 19 July elections, which he won.
About 20% of Mauritanians live on less than US$1.25 per day.
Mauritania is big – over 1 million square kilometres ; not far off twice the size of France – and has a relatively small (4.3 million) population. It’s one of the least densely populated countries in the world.
Modern-day slavery still exists in different forms in Mauritania. According to some estimates, thousands of Mauritanians are still enslaved. A 2012 CNNreport, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” by John D. Sutter, describes and documents the ongoing slave-owning cultures. This social discrimination is applied chiefly against the “black Moors” (Haratin) in the northern part of the country, where tribal elites among “white Moors” (Bidh’an, Hassaniya-speaking Arabs and Arabized Berbers) hold sway. Slavery practices exist also within the sub-Saharan African ethnic groups of the south.
The great Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused massive devastation in Mauritania, exacerbating problems of poverty and conflict. The Arabized dominant elites reacted to changing circumstances, and to Arab nationalist calls from abroad, by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and the education system. This was also a reaction to the consequences of the French domination under the colonial rule. Various models for maintaining the country’s cultural diversity have been suggested, but none were successfully implemented.
This ethnic discord was evident during inter-communal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the “Mauritania–Senegal Border War“), but has since subsided. Mauritania expelled some 70,000 sub-Saharan African Mauritanians in the late 1980s. Ethnic tensions and the sensitive issue of slavery – past and, in some areas, present – are still powerful themes in the country’s political debate. A significant number from all groups seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
Slavery in Mauritania
Slavery persists in Mauritania. In 1905, the French colonial administration declared an end of slavery in Mauritania, with very little success. Although nominally abolished in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007. According to the US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report, abuses in Mauritania include:
…mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; security force impunity; lengthy pretrial detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; slavery and slavery-related practices; and child labor.
The report continues: “Government efforts were not sufficient to enforce the antislavery law. No cases have been successfully prosecuted under the antislavery law despite the fact that ‘de facto’ slavery exists in Mauritania.”
Only one person, Oumoulmoumnine Mint Bakar Vall, has been prosecuted for owning slaves and she was sentenced to six months in jail in January 2011. In 2012, it was estimated that 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania (between 340,000 and 680,000 people) live in slavery.
According to the Global Slavery Index 2014 compiled by Walk Free Foundation, there are an estimated 155,600 enslaved people in Mauritania, ranking it 31st of 167 countries by absolute number of slaves, and 1st by prevalence, with 4% of the population. The Government ranks 121 of 167 on its response to combating all forms of modern slavery.
The government of Mauritania denies that slavery continues in the country. In an interview, the Mauritanian Minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar, responded to accusations of human rights abuse by stating:
I must tell you that in Mauritania, freedom is total: freedom of thought, equality – of all men and women of Mauritania… in all cases, especially with this government, this is in the past. There are probably former relationships – slavery relationships and familial relationships from old days and of the older generations, maybe, or descendants who wish to continue to be in relationships with descendants of their old masters, for familial reasons, or out of affinity, and maybe also for economic interests. But (slavery) is something that is totally finished. All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon no longer exists. And I believe that I can tell you that no one profits from this commerce.
Obstacles to ending slavery in Mauritania include:
- The difficulty of enforcing any laws in the country’s vast desert
- Poverty that limits opportunities for slaves to support themselves if freed
- Belief that slavery is part of the natural order of this society.
In November 2016, an appeals court in Mauritania overturned the jail convictions of three anti-slavery activists and reduced the sentences of 10 others for their alleged role in a riot in June, Amnesty International said. Another court had originally sentenced the 15 human rights activists and members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) to 15 years in prison.
Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Mauritania, including kidnapping. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.
The porous nature of borders in the Sahel region – of which Mauritania is a part – means terrorist groups are able to operate across borders and carry out attacks anywhere in the region.
As seen in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, terrorist groups continue to mount attacks on beach resorts, hotels, cafes and restaurants visited by foreigners. Be especially vigilant in these locations.
The main threat comes from groups associated with Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeer (JNIM). JNIM formed in March 2017 following the merger of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar-al-Dine and al-Murabitun. These groups remain intent on demonstrating capability and increasing influence across the wider region. Read more about the threat from terrorism in the Sahel region.
There’s a high threat of kidnap throughout Mauritania from these terrorist groups. Although 2 foreign victims were released in May and August 2017 after years in captivity, several foreign hostages are still held by factions of JNIM in the Sahel.
Victims in the region have included construction workers, humanitarian workers, tourists and diplomats, often people travelling under tight security arrangements. If you’re kidnapped, the reason for your presence is unlikely to serve as a protection or secure your safe release.
JNIM operates directly or through criminal gangs who carry out kidnappings on their behalf or pass on their kidnap victims in return for payment. The long-standing policy of the British government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage-takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage-taking. The Terrorism Act (2000) also makes payments to terrorists illegal.
When travelling in Mauritania you should take sensible safety precautions. Keep a low profile and maintain a high level of vigilance, particularly in public places and where there are large gatherings of people.
There is a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
World Bank Data
Here’s the latest World Bank data for Mauritania – with the year 2000 as a comparison.
GDP $4.7 bn 2016 $1.3 bn 2000
Population 4.30 m 2016 2.71 m 2000
Primary school enrolment* 102 % 2014 83 % 2000
CO2 Emissions** 0.67 2014 0.43 2000
% below poverty line*** 31 % 2012 51% 2002
Life expectancy at birth 63 yrs 2015 60 yrs 2000
GNI per capita $1130 2016 $520 2000
*Percentage can exceed 100% due to the inclusion of over and under aged students
** Metric tons per capita
***The World Bank notes that the methodology can vary between countries and over time within a given country. (While most of the World Bank data generally follows understandable trends, this number often oscillates wildly suggesting that different methodologies are frequently used over time within a given country.)
Greatest Sporting Nation Data
Finally, here’s the data from Greatest Sporting Nation on how Mauritania performed in the global sporting arena in 2017:
Global Cup – NA
Per Capita Cup – NA
The Global Cup aggregates results from over 1000 events across 80 sports to produce the definitive annual ranking of international sporting success. The Per Capita Cup uses the same data to produce an annual per capita ranking.